The 20 strangest weather events in the world
21 June 2021 | Matt Mostyn
To celebrate OVO’s sponsorship of Channel 4 Weather, we’re honouring the Great British weather’s role in powering Great British homes, with regular blogs on the UK’s favourite subject!
As we probably know all too well, the weather can be pretty darn strange sometimes. At time of writing, following a cold, washout May (the fifth wettest on record), we’re suddenly plunged headlong into summer. And who can say how long that will last before the next curve-ball!
But the weather’s got more to throw at us than we even know. From spherical balls of lighting that hover in mid-air, to an optical illusion that gives you a rainbow-like halo, here are 20 of the world’s strangest weather events ever witnessed.
1. White rainbows in San Francisco
When conditions are right, you might be lucky enough to one day see a “fogbow”. These ghostly-looking spectres appear opposite the sun, just like a normal rainbow. But tiny water droplets in fog make them appear white, rather than coloured, when sunlight passes through them.
They tend to appear in places prone to fog – like San Francisco. And you might also see them in the mountains of Romania, at the base of Yosemite Falls, or in the cloud forests of Costa Rica.
2. Lightning sprites in Texas
A “Jellyfish” Sprite captured by Stephen Hummel at Mt. Locke Texas, 2 July 2020
These weirdly beautiful electrical phenomena take place high above thunderclouds, way up in the Earth’s atmosphere, about 50 to 90 kilometres above our heads. They’re called lightning sprites – and they’re nature’s way of balancing out the positive lightning charges released between the thundercloud and the ground below.
The biggest and best are known as jellyfish sprites – named after their long tentacles that seem to drop down from space. They’re ultra-fast, so blink and you’ll probably miss them – and they’re often obscured by storm clouds. But they can be as big as 30 miles across! Since the sprites' discovery in 1989, scientists have spotted them over every continent except Antarctica.
3. Noctilucent clouds in the UK
Noctilucent clouds (sometimes called “night shining clouds”) are the highest in the world – and they’re quite something to behold. These electric-blue cloud formations stretch more than 80km (50 miles) up, on the edge of space, and they look like something from another planet.
They’re sometimes spotted right here in the UK, and form as a result of ice crystals reflecting sunlight after sunset. They only appear in summer, at latitudes between 45° and 80° north and south of the equator, and you’ll most likely spot them in places like Estonia, Finland and Sweden.
These clouds may also be a warning sign of climate change. They’ve been sighted more and more recently, and they’re also growing much brighter. That’s because much of the moisture needed to form them comes from methane. This greenhouse gas produces water vapour when it breaks down in the upper atmosphere. And as methane pollution has increased, noctilucent clouds have become more common, and more widespread.
4. Sun halos – pretty much everywhere
Suspended in the lowest layer of the Earth’s atmosphere, sun halos appear when ice crystals in high, thin cirrus clouds reflect sunlight. This creates an illusion of a ring around the sun.
You can spot them pretty much anywhere in the world – and according to folklore, they’re a warning of approaching rain or snow.
Halos can pop up anywhere on the planet, during both winter and summer – and they can also appear around the moon.
5. Morning glory clouds in Australia
These stunning-looking clouds are very rare formations that look like enormous tubes rolling through the sky. They can measure up to 600 miles long, and can even occasionally appear in groups.
It’s thought that they’re formed when an updraft pushes through clouds, creating the distinctive rolling appearance. Then moist, cooler air behind causes them to sink downward. For that reason, they usually sit quite low in the sky as they snake their way along.
These clouds can appear in California, Eastern Russia, and even the English Channel. But the best place to see them is in northern Australia's Gulf of Carpentaria, usually from late September to early November.
6. Supercells in Tornado Alley, US
Supercells are apocalyptic-looking cloudfronts that sweep in before a huge storm. Known for their distinctive, tall structure (which often looks like an anvil), they’re terrifying to look at, and can leave a trail of widespread devastation.
These massive thunderstorms contain a strong rotating updraft called a mesocyclone. And they can unleash everything from violent hail to torrential rain, and even on occasion, tornadoes.
While they can occur pretty much anywhere in the world, they’re particularly common in the Great Plains area of the US – known as Tornado Alley. If you see one, take cover!
7. Hole-punch clouds – pretty much anywhere
Also known as a Fallstreak hole, a hole-punch cloud forms inside cirrocumulus or altocumulus clouds. Their distinctive holes are thought to appear when water droplets in the clouds freeze into ice crystals. Heavier ice crystals fall below the cloud level, creating a hole – but it’s still unclear why the freezing happens only in one particular area.
The phenomenon is harmless, and can appear in the sky anywhere in the world. But because they’re so rare (and strange-looking) they’re often associated with UFOs, and theories about aliens!
8. Giant hailstones in Europe
Unusually large hailstones – sometimes called ice bombs – can fall from the sky during severe thunderstorms. They’re formed from normal-sized hail that collect water droplets as it falls. That instantly freezes on, and forms another layer, before the stone is caught in an updraught and carried back higher into the cloud, to collect more layers of ice.
These layers can build up until the stone is very big. They can strike anywhere – but according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the official world-record for the largest hailstone belongs to an 8-inch (20.3 cm) hailstone that fell in South Dakota in 2010. One ice bomb was found to weigh as much as 36kg!
Of course, hail this size can do serious damage – not only to buildings and cars, but also to people unlucky enough to be hit. So if it happens, run for cover like your life depends on it!
9. The Northern Lights in Lapland
Of course, the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, are perhaps the best-known (and most hunted) of all the world’s weird weather phenomena. This incredible light display of neon greens, pinks and yellows happen when atoms are energised as they collide with the atmosphere – and it can be a breathtaking and surreal event to witness.
They’re best viewed far in the north on clear, inky black winter nights. Finnish Lapland is one of the best places to see them – and this is one event that’s high up on many people’s bucket list!
10. Frostwork and frost flowers in the Arctic
These majestic ice flowers often bloom on sea or lake ice across the Arctic. Also known as Arctic Ocean Frost Flowers, they’re formed when the underlying water temperature is warmer than the air. The conditions form imperfections on the surface of the ice in sub-zero temperatures – usually around -20 celsius.
To make them even more strange, these delicate patterns have been found to contain microorganisms that create their own little miniature ecosystem – similar to what you might see on a coral reef.
You’ll have the best chance of seeing these beautiful works of art in the north during freezing winters with little rainfall – from Scandinavia and Russia, to northern Canada. The lakes in Hokkaido, Japan are also famous for the spectacle.
11. Sundogs – pretty much anywhere
Much like sun halos, sun dogs are formed when the sun is close to the horizon and there are wispy cirrus clouds high in the sky. This causes the sun’s rays to be deflected by tiny ice crystals in the clouds. Those conditions can form a halo – but when the shafts of light are vertically aligned, they create sundogs or “mock suns” – spots of light that flank the real sun.
Sundogs can happen anywhere with the right conditions. And whenever the moon’s particularly bright, you can also see the night-time equivalent – which is, appropriately enough, called a moondog.
In January 2019, during a polar vortex (a band of strong winds high up in the stratosphere that cause extreme cold weather), sundogs were spotted across the midwest and northeast United States. But in fact, you can see them anywhere that’s bitterly cold.
13. Snow donuts in North America
They might remind you of the Krispy Kreme variety – but these snow donuts aren’t nearly so tasty. Made by the wind, they’re formed much the same way as a snowball. The wind picks up some snow, rolling it across the ground, where it gathers up more snow before coming to rest. And they get their distinctive hollow look because the thinner inner layers blow away as they’re formed.
Being lighter than snowballs, they can travel much further. But if you ever see one, consider yourself lucky. Snow donuts are actually quite rare, because they need perfect weather conditions. That means a layer of icy snow on the ground, to stop new snow from sticking, plus a lighter top layer of snow, and enough wind (but not too much) to set the donut in motion.
You're mostly to spot one in the open prairies of North America, or in some remote parts of Northern Europe.
13. Lenticular clouds – around mountains everywhere
These bizarre clouds can take the shape of waves, pizza, pancakes, and – much to the excitement of ufologists – even flying saucers. But while they may look like something straight out of a sci-fi film, lenticular clouds have a perfectly rational explanation.
They form on the downwind side of a mountain when moist air flows downwards, and then stabilises. Which is what causes them to just hang in the air, without moving. And while they appear calm and tranquil, they’re known for producing turbulence – so pilots and hot-air-ballooners beware!
14. Ball lightning – pretty much anywhere
This unusual phenomenon is probably one of the weirdest ever witnessed. Lightning balls are – true to the name – small spherical balls of lighting that sometimes hover in mid-air. Much to the amazement of those who’ve seen them.
They can either float down from the sky, or form several meters off the ground. They can bounce off objects, and also set fire to things – and with them often comes a distinct smell of sulphur.
Scientists are still unsure how they form, but believe they’re usually related to thunderstorm activity. But it’s impossible to predict when or where they’ll appear. So keep your eyes peeled, and your running legs handy!
15. Raining frogs and fish in Hungary
The proverbial “raining cats and dogs” is one thing – but it has been known to actually rain frogs, fish and other animals.
This happens when tornadoes and waterspouts suck the poor things up, before “raining” them down to terra firma again. And it’s been well-documented for years. In 1957, thousands of small fish, frogs and crayfish fell from the sky during a rainstorm in Alabama. In 2013 it rained crabs in Florida, and frogs in Hungary – and in 2007, Los Angeles even had a shower of worms!
While there’s yet to be a single recorded video of it happening, there have been multiple eyewitness accounts throughout history. And most surprisingly of all, frogs and fish often survive the fall!
16. The pirate green flash in Hawaii
Well, shiver me timbers! Film fans may know about this bizarre spectacle after seeing the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Known as the pirate green flash, it’s an optical illusion that happens just above the horizon before sunset, or after sunrise.
It takes place over the sea, when water vapour absorbs yellow and orange light, and air molecules scatter violet light. This light refracting in the atmosphere causes a green spot above the sun that lasts no more than a second or 2.
It can be seen anywhere in the world – but a clear view of a distant horizon on a clear day is the ideal scenario. The west-facing beaches of Florida or Hawaii are ideal spots to witness it.
17. Mammatus clouds – pretty much anywhere
People who see mammatus clouds often say it looks like the sky is falling down – and they wouldn’t be far wrong. These giant white lumps in the sky form when moist air sinks into dry air.
The air often has a large liquid water or ice content – and it’s this unique mixture that creates the unique, bubble-like appearance. And, handily for any budding meteorologist, these clouds are usually a sign that severe weather is on the way.
Formed due to turbulence within a storm cloud, mammatus clouds can appear anywhere in the world.
18. Waterspouts in the UK
A waterspout is a vortex column of air and water mist that appears as a funnel-shaped cloud over water. Usually moving in alongside high winds and thunderstorms, they’re similar to tornadoes, but usually smaller and less intense.
One less dangerous type of waterspout is known as the “fair-weather waterspout”. This type’s more common, quite weak, and only lasts for a few minutes. It also tends not to move very far, due to the gentler surrounding conditions.
Waterspouts can even be witnessed here in the UK (usually in late summer). It’s estimated that we get around 15 a year. In Europe they’re quite common off the coasts of Spain, Italy and the Netherlands.
19. Derechos in the midwest US
This severe wind storm can reach speeds of 100mph, and often leaves a trail of devastation for hundreds of miles in its wake. Derechos are usually born from one great thunderstorm that’s formed by many smaller ones. Think of them like an army of thunderstorms rampaging across the land.
They’re recognised by their unmistakable shape – which is something like an archer's bow. They’re most common in summer – and the midwest US gets more than its fair share of these terrifying acts of nature.
20. The Brocken Spectre in Germany
You’ll need to be a mountain-climber to witness this one – but the Brocken Spectre is something pretty special, if you ever get the chance to witness it. Essentially, it’s your own shadow, magnified and topped with a rainbow-like halo, for an effect that some say is like a scene straight from heaven.
It happens when the sun behind you casts a shadow on water droplets in the air before you, and reflects off the droplets. This light then diffracts, or spreads, creating the shadow's rainbow-like halo.
The name itself comes from the Brocken, the highest peak in Germany's Harz Mountains. Here, misty mountain peaks poke just above cloud level, and the sun is relatively low in the sky – creating perfect conditions for this spooky optical illusion.
Talking about the weather has been voted our favourite national obsession. Learn some surprising reasons why, in our blog: 7 reasons why Brits are so obsessed with the weather.
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